Visit Shima Onsen to explore one of the oldest and most popular onsens in Japan, that just so happens to be easily reached from Tokyo.
Introductory Guide to Shima Onsen
When visiting Japan, an experience not to be missed is a trip to one of the country’s romantic onsen towns. Shima Onsen in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture is one of the most popular onsen towns in Honshu, not to mention one of the country’s oldest. By adding this beautiful destination to your Japan itinerary you get to experience soaking in a Japanese onsen, sleeping in a traditional ryokan, and plenty of gorgeous mountain scenery. Here’s what you need to know about visiting Shima Onsen with your Japan Rail Pass to enjoy a brilliant trip away.
Brief Background to Shima Onsen
To appreciate why Shima Onsen is so special and worthy of a visit, it helps to know a little about the town itself. The name “Shima” means forty thousand and is said to refer to the number of diseases its hot spring waters can cure. While many of the oldest buildings in town are centuries old, the town was started in the late 10th century.
Shima Onsen is located along the Shima River in the northwest mountains of Gunwa Prefecture. It’s mountain setting and dozens of hot spring sources have made it a natural retreat for those seeking a quiet place to get away and heal whatever ails them. Shima has mostly managed to avoid modern development up to this point, preserving its old-fashioned look and gentle atmosphere.
Best Places to Visit in Shima Onsen
What makes Shima Onsen one of the most popular onsens in Japan isn’t just its soothing hot springs, even if they are quite fantastic to enjoy. No, it’s the beautiful atmosphere of the town and the many sights you can visit there that make this such a dreamy getaway spot.
Obviously one of the best things to do in Shima Onsen is to experience its hot springs first hand. While you could go to a ryokan for their luxurious baths, another option is to visit one of the more affordable and freely available public bath houses around town. Gomusonoyu and Kawaranoyu are two public bath houses that have free entry, while Seiryunoyu offers an excellent outdoor pool with views of the river. Just make sure to check our guide to bathing etiquette in Japan so that you know what to expect and what to do when you get there.
Central Town Area
Another essential activity while in Shima Onsen is to go for a generous walk around town to explore all that it has to offer. Shima Onsen has three distinct town areas, the Upper Town, Central Town, and Lower Town areas. It’s in the Central Town area that you’ll find some of the most interesting little spots around Shima Onsen. The area is home to many hot spring drinking fountains that you can freely drink from, as well as the many shops and game arcades of Ochiai Dori street.
Perhaps the most famous landmark in town, among tourists at least, is the Sekizenkan ryokan. While this historic ryokan deserves plenty of notice as the oldest wooden ryokan in the country and for its beautiful styling, that’s not why so many people pay it a visit. Instead, it’s because it is widely believed to have served as inspiration for the Spirited Away ryokan in the beloved animated film. While never confirmed to be the model for the movie, the resemblance is clear, making it a natural inclusion on any trip for anime fans.
If you follow the river valley upstream from the town centre you’ll soon arrive at the brilliant and peaceful Lake Okushima. Found at the highest point of the town, this lake is surrounded by mountains, forest, and streams making it the perfect spot for a nature break. While the Shimagawa Dam may not be the prettiest sight, the rest of the area is gorgeous both in autumn and spring. There are even several waterfalls in the surrounding countryside, including the Ogurano Falls, Shakunage Waterfall, and Koizumino Falls.
One last beautiful spot in town is the quaint Yakushido Buddhist temple. Despite its small size, this temple that honours Yakushi, the Buddha of healing and medicine, is a joy to see up close thanks to its thatched roofing and traditional look. The temple is found just next to the Gomusonoyu public bath house.
Staying at a Shima Onsen Ryokan
A trip to Shima Onsen from Tokyo is the perfect chance to experience all aspects of Japan’s traditional side, including what it's like to stay at a ryokan during your time there. Ryokan are an experience in themselves and can add a lot to your overall enjoyment of Shima Onsen, so don’t miss out on such a great opportunity.
You have plenty of choices of ryokan in Shima Onsen, so it’s worth doing a little research to see which looks right for you. Popular choices include Sekizenkan Ryokan which is no doubt popular with anime fans, as well as Kashiwaya Ryokan which has a tattoo-friendly policy that may suit some international visitors very well. Other major local luxurious ryokan to consider include Yamaguchikan by the river and Shima Tamura in the heart of town.
Visiting Shima Onsen with the JR Pass
To reach Shima Onsen, travellers have a few options available to them. The JR Pass can cover some parts of the journey, but due to the town’s remote location, it’s not possible to travel there completely using your pass.
When travelling from Tokyo, passholders can take the JR Kusatsu limited express or a combination of the Joetsu and Agatsuma lines to travel from Ueno Station to Nakanojo. From Nakanojo, there is a 50-minute bus through the mountains to Shima Onsen. Alternatively, there are direct buses with Kanetsu Bus to Shima Onsen from Tokyo Station Yaesu Exit, with one or two departures a day.